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K-12 STEM and STEAM Education in the United States: Vision and Best Practices

by Sarah Bush & Kristin Cook - October 12, 2018

This commentary discusses the roots and purpose of both K-12 STEM and STEAM education in the United States. The authors advocate for STEAM as a way to engage more students in mathematics and science, while being guided by the three E's: Equity, Empathy, and Experience.


The acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) first originated from the National Science Foundation in the 1990s and has been used to describe any program, policy, event, or practice associated with one or more of the STEM disciplines (Bybee, 2010a; Bybee, 2010b). The STEM movement in the United States is generally grounded in the need to remain globally competitive, and measures outcomes through various aspects of workforce development. Specifically, in the U.S., there is a shortage of STEM majors and university graduates (National Science Board, 2016), and this problem is compounded both by the projected growth of STEM jobs (Langdon, McKittrick, Beede, Khan, & Doms, 2011; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008) and a shortage of highly qualified STEM educators (Cowan et al., 2016). Further, there now exists a collection of U.S. policy documents and reports on STEM (e.g., National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, & Institute of Medicine, 2010; National Research Council, 2011; National Science Board, 2015; Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2010; U.S. Department of Education, 2016), which collectively make recommendations (as outlined in Bush, in press) centered on K12 STEM education curriculum, standards, programs, and literacy. These recommendations focus on increasing: 1) the number of students pursuing STEM majors and careers (with a focus on underrepresented populations); 2) the recruitment, retention, recognition, preparation, and professional development of STEM teachers; and 3) STEM education funding and research.

Rooted in college and career readiness, global competitiveness, and meeting the needs of industry, the understanding of STEM education and its outcomes has evolved over the past few decades. For example, there are research-based frameworks focused on integrated STEM (Asunda & Mativo, 2016; Bybee, 2013; Honey, Pearson, & Schweingruber, 2014; Hwang & Taylor, 2016; Kelley & Knowles, 2016; Moore et al., 2014), key K12 standards documents that support the integration of the STEM disciplines (Common Core State Standards, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010; Next Generation Science Standards, NGSS Lead States, 2013), and empirical research on the effectiveness of integrated STEM (e.g., Becker & Park, 2011; Hurley, 2001; Roehrig, Moore, Wang, & Park, 2012). However, even with all the promise that integrated STEM teaching and learning holds, there remains a lack of interest in STEM subjects, and even more so for diverse learners (PCAST, 2010). Students interested in STEM are primarily motivated by academic and career achievement, and research has pointed to the need for strategies directed toward increasing interest in STEM among underrepresented populations, improving student academic achievement in both science and mathematics, and expanding knowledge of STEM careers and experience through mentors (Holmes, et al., 2018).


Variations of STEM (e.g., STREAM, inclusive of reading; STEMM, inclusive of medicine;

and STEMS, inclusive of the social sciences) have arisen to incorporate various foci and appeal to more types of learners. In all of these variations, the central goal has been to move beyond traditional curricula, in which the disciplines are siloed, and to purposefully and meaningfully cross disciplinary boundaries in order to solve complex and authentic problems. In particular, STEAM (i.e., STEM plus the arts) has begun to take root in the literature base as a form of purposeful integration that holds promise for addressing the lack of student interest in STEM (Ahn & Kwon, 2013; Bush & Cook, 2019b). While K12 STEM and STEAM learning environments share common characteristics, it is important to note that the roots of STEAM are different. While STEM was a reaction to the needs of our nation, STEAM is proactive. STEAM places a focus on 1) solving authentic problems to improve our world; 2) incorporating the arts with a focus on aesthetics, creativity, personal expression, and meaning; and 3) designing solutions for others, which fosters empathy and brings purpose to the need to understand the disciplinary components embedded in the problem (Bush, Karp, Cox, Cook, Albanese, & Karp, 2018; Cook & Bush, 2018). Even so, in K12 schools and districts, STEAM can also be reactive, for example, when a school district decides to create a STEAM lab in response to no longer having art classes to offer students. Specifically, our vision of K12 STEAM education is informed by several reasons to consider adding the A, which include but are not limited to the following.


The arts show appreciation for and recognize the role of beauty, creativity, aesthetics, and emotion in creating a solution to a problem (Bailey, 2016).


Integrating the arts addresses the affective connection as students grasp difficult concepts (Smith & Paré, 2016).


The arts relate to the transformative role empathy can have in STEAM teaching and learning as students engage in developing solutions aligned with making the world a better place (Cook & Bush, 2018).


Integrating the arts provides a vehicle with which to engage more types of learners, specifically students who do not see themselves in STEM (Ahn & Kwon, 2013; Bequette & Bequette, 2012; Wynn & Harris, 2012).

To provide equitable access in our K12 schools, STEAM education should begin early and continue throughout students educational experiences. While only some students will ultimately choose to pursue STEM career paths, each and every student can leave with foundational STEM literacy (as in Bybee, 2010a; Zollman, 2012), that is, an enhanced understanding of science and mathematics, with the confidence and abilities needed to solve complex societal problems. By fusing STEM with the arts, our society benefits from citizens who can employ their knowledge of these disciplines with their creative and innovative selves for the betterment of all.


Our vision of K12 STEAM education is guided by what we call the three Es: Equity, Empathy, and Experience (Bush & Cook, in press). Intentionally listed first, Equity focuses on providing equitable access to STEAM education across classrooms (both traditional and non-traditional settings), schools, and districts for each and every student, and is guided by reform-based practices in mathematics and science education (e.g., NCTMs Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All [2014] and NSTAs A Framework for K12 Science Education [2011]). Through this lens on equitable access, integrated STEAM education 1) provides a context for mathematics and science reform teaching practices to be realized; 2) engages students in reform-based practices such as meaningful discourse, productive struggle, and authentic scientific inquiry; and 3) importantly positions mathematics as essential to problem solving. In essence, creating an environment where inquiries are low floor, high ceiling makes learning accessible, highlights student strengths, and makes students passionate about the problems they are solving (Bush & Cook, in press).

Second, Empathy plays a key role in engaging students in STEAM learning. When inquiries are designed (such as in Bush, Cox, & Cook, 2016; Kaiser, Owen, Cook, & Bush, 2018) that begin by taking students on a journey in which they develop passionate feelings for what it would be like in a certain situation or environment, the buy-in that students develop for solving the problem becomes inspiring (Bush & Cook, in press). This level of enthusiasm often stays with them throughout the inquiry. In Design Thinking, (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, 2010), empathy is the first step in a non-linear process in which students empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test as they develop solutions to ill-defined yet authentic problems. Framing STEAM inquiries through Design Thinking is a natural fit as Design Thinking seamlessly infuses the empathy component and underscores the importance of creativity in developing solutions (Bush & Cook, 2018).

Finally, lets consider the unique Experience that STEAM education can offer. When students are engaged in STEAM learning, they:


can experience learning that transcends the STEAM disciplines (Choi & Pak, 2006),


do not ask the So what? or When will I ever use this? questions,


engage in meaningful learning of key mathematics and science content and practices, and


become passionate about truly understanding the content they need to know so they can solve the problem.

The STEAM experience is highly individualized as students bring their innovative ideas and unique selves to solving problems under investigation. During these experiences, students are guided by knowledgeable others, including a variety of teachers and other stakeholders (as in Bush & Cook, 2016), who assist them in deep explorations of content and practices to solve authentic problems.


For the past six years, we have been deeply embedded in the research, teacher preparation and development, and practice of integrated K12 STEM and STEAM education, and our thinking has evolved greatly. The purpose of STEAM education, through our lens, is to engage students in the content and practices of mathematics and science in order to deepen their understanding and their abilities to create solutions to authentic problems in our world. A key difference in STEAM experiences is the infusion of the arts, which prioritize expression, personal meaning-making, innovation, and creativity. While it is clear that both STEM and STEAM education are extremely valuable, we advocate for STEAM as a vehicle through which to reach the whole child in ways that build compassion and creativity, foster STEM literacy, and provide access to each and every student.  


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 12, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22533, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 11:49:49 PM

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About the Author
  • Sarah Bush
    University of Central Florida, College of Community Innovation and Education
    E-mail Author
    SARAH BUSH is Associate Professor of KĖ12 STEM Education at the University of Central Florida.
  • Kristin Cook
    Bellarmine University, Annsley Frazier Thornton School of Education
    E-mail Author
    KRISTIN COOK is the Interim Associate Dean of the School of Education at Bellarmine University.
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